Paul faces shipwreck, showing great faith and love for people
Based on Acts 27:1–28:10
1, 2. What kind of voyage is Paul facing, and what might be some of his concerns?
PAUL turns the words over in his mind, for they will have a great bearing on his future. “To Caesar you will go,” Governor Festus had said. Paul has spent two years cooped up in prison, so the long trip to Rome will, at the least, bring a change of scenery. (Acts 25:12) However, Paul’s many vivid memories of sea voyages involve far more than refreshing breezes and open horizons. The prospect of this voyage to appear before Caesar may also raise a number of grave questions in Paul’s mind.
2 Paul has been “in dangers at sea” many times, having survived three shipwrecks, even spending a night and a day in the open sea. (2 Cor. 11:25, 26) Furthermore, this trip will be quite unlike the missionary journeys he has taken as a free man. Paul will be traveling as a prisoner and over a tremendous distance—some 2,000 miles (over 3,000 km) from Caesarea to Rome. Can he survive such a voyage unscathed? Even if he can, is he sailing toward his own doom? Remember, he faces the judgment of the mightiest secular power in Satan’s world at that time.
3. What was Paul’s determination, and what will we discuss in this chapter?
3 After all that you have read about Paul, do you think that he gave in to hopelessness and despair over the prospect before him? Hardly! He knew that hardships lay ahead, but he did not know what form his troubles would take. Why should he bury the joy of his ministry under a load of anxiety about things he could not control? (Matt. 6:27, 34) Paul knew that Jehovah’s will for him was that he use every occasion to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom, even to secular rulers. (Acts 9:15) Paul was determined to live up to his commission, come what may. Is that not our determination as well? So let us follow Paul on this historic voyage as we weigh the practical value of his example.
“The Winds Were Against Us” (Acts 27:1-7a)
4. On what kind of vessel did Paul begin his voyage, and who were his companions?
4 Paul and some other prisoners were entrusted to the care of a Roman officer named Julius, who chose to board a merchant ship that had arrived at Caesarea. The ship had come from Adramyttium, a port on the west coast of Asia Minor, across from the city of Mitylene on the island of Lesbos. This ship would sail north and then westward, making stops to unload and take on cargo. Such vessels were not outfitted for passenger comfort, especially not for prisoners. (See the box “Sea Travel and Trade Routes.”) Thankfully, Paul would not be the only Christian among a group of criminals. At least two fellow believers accompanied him—Aristarchus and Luke. It was Luke, of course, who penned the account. We do not know whether these two loyal companions paid for their passage or acted as servants to Paul.—Acts 27:1, 2.
5. What fellowship was Paul able to enjoy at Sidon, and what may we learn from this?
5 After spending one day at sea and traveling about 70 miles (110 km) north, the ship docked at Sidon, on the Syrian coast. Apparently Julius did not treat Paul as an ordinary criminal, possibly because Paul was a Roman citizen who had not been proved guilty. (Acts 22:27, 28; 26:31, 32) Julius let Paul go ashore to see fellow Christians. How the brothers and sisters must have enjoyed caring for the apostle after his long imprisonment! Can you think of occasions when you might be able to provide similar loving hospitality and be upbuilt in return?—Acts 27:3.
6-8. How did Paul’s journey progress from Sidon to Cnidus, and what opportunities did Paul likely seize with regard to preaching?
6 Putting out to sea from Sidon, the ship then continued up the coast and past Cilicia, near Paul’s hometown, Tarsus. Luke does not mention other stops, although he includes the ominous detail that “the winds were against us.” (Acts 27:4, 5) Still, we can envision Paul seizing every opportunity to share the good news. Surely he witnessed to fellow prisoners and others on board, including the crew and the soldiers, as well as to people at any of the ports where the ship docked. Do we today likewise make good use of the opportunities to preach that are open to us?
7 In time, the ship reached Myra, a port on the southern coast of Asia Minor. There Paul and others had to change to another vessel, which would take them to Rome, their final destination. (Acts 27:6) In those days, Egypt was a granary for Rome, and Egyptian grain ships docked at Myra. Julius located such a ship and had the soldiers and prisoners board. This vessel must have been much larger than the first ship. It carried a valuable cargo of wheat as well as 276 people—the crew, the soldiers, the prisoners, and likely others heading to Rome. Clearly, with this change of ships, Paul’s witnessing territory expanded, and he undoubtedly took advantage of that situation.
8 The next stop was Cnidus, on the southwest corner of Asia Minor. With favorable winds, a ship could cover that distance in about a day. Yet, Luke reports that “after sailing on slowly quite a number of days, we came to Cnidus with difficulty.” (Acts 27:7a) Sailing conditions had deteriorated. (See the box “The Contrary Winds of the Mediterranean.”) Think of the people on board as the ship bucked the strong winds and rough waters.
“Violently Tossed by the Storm” (Acts 27:7b-26)
9, 10. What difficulties arose in the vicinity of Crete?
9 The ship’s captain planned to continue westward from Cnidus, but eyewitness Luke says that “the wind did not let us make headway.” (Acts 27:7b) As the ship moved away from the mainland, it lost the shore current, and then a powerful adverse wind from the northwest pushed it southward, perhaps at great speed. Just as the island of Cyprus had earlier sheltered the coastal vessel from contrary winds, this time, the island of Crete did so. Once the ship passed the promontory of Salmone at the east end of Crete, things improved a bit. Why? The ship came to be on the lee, or southern, side of the island, so there was some protection from the powerful winds. Imagine the relief that those on board must have felt—at first! But as long as the ship was at sea, the crew could not ignore the approach of winter. They had cause for concern.
10 Luke states with precision: “Sailing with difficulty along the coast [of Crete], we came to a place called Fair Havens.” Even in the shelter of the landmass, it was hard to control the ship. At last, though, they found an anchorage in a small bay that is thought to lie in the region just before the coast turns northward. How long did they remain there? Luke says “a considerable time,” but time was not in their favor. In September/October, navigation was more hazardous.—Acts 27:8, 9.
11. Paul gave his shipmates what advice, yet what decision was made?
11 Some passengers may have sought Paul’s advice because of his experience in traveling the Mediterranean. He recommended that the ship not sail on. If it did, there would be “damage and great loss,” maybe even loss of life. However, the pilot and the shipowner wanted to keep going, possibly feeling it urgent to find a safer location. They convinced Julius, and the majority felt that they should try to reach Phoenix, a port farther along the coast. It may have had a larger and better harbor in which to spend the winter. So when a deceptively soft breeze from the south blew, the ship departed.—Acts 27:10-13.
12. After leaving Crete, the ship faced what dangers, and how did the crew attempt to stave off disaster?
12 Then came more trouble: a “violent wind” from the northeast. For a time, they found shelter behind “a small island called Cauda” some 40 miles (65 km) from Fair Havens. Still, the ship was in danger of being driven southward until it would crash on the sandbanks off the coast of Africa. Frantic to avoid that end, the sailors pulled in the small boat that the ship was towing. They struggled to perform the task, for the skiff was likely full of water. Then they labored to undergird the large ship, passing ropes or chains under it to hold its planks together. And they lowered its gear, the mainsail or rigging, and strained to keep the ship headed into the wind to weather the storm. Imagine how terrifying this experience must have been! Even these measures were not enough, as the ship continued to be “violently tossed by the storm.” On the third day, they heaved the tackling overboard, probably to recover buoyancy.—Acts 27:14-19.
13. What must life have been like aboard Paul’s ship during the storm?
13 Terror must have reigned. But Paul and his companions were of good courage. The Lord had previously assured Paul that the apostle would bear witness in Rome, and an angel later confirmed this promise. (Acts 19:21; 23:11) Nevertheless, night and day for two weeks, the driving storm kept on. Because of unrelenting rain and a thick cloud cover that blocked out the sun and stars, the pilot could not make sightings to determine the ship’s location or heading. Even a normal meal would have been out of the question. How could anyone think of eating, given the cold, rain, seasickness, and fear?
14, 15. (a) In speaking to his shipmates, why did Paul mention his earlier warning? (b) What may we learn from the hopeful message that Paul delivered?
14 Paul stood up. He mentioned his earlier warning but not as if to say, ‘I told you so.’ Rather, the unfolding of events was proof that his words were well worth heeding. Then he said: “I now urge you to take courage, for not one of you will be lost, only the ship will.” (Acts 27:21, 22) How those words must have warmed the hearts of his listeners! Paul would have been intensely pleased, too, that Jehovah had given him such a hopeful message to share. It is vital that we remember that Jehovah cares about every human life. Each person matters to him. The apostle Peter wrote: “Jehovah . . . does not desire anyone to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) How urgent it is, then, that we endeavor to share Jehovah’s message of hope with as many people as possible! Precious lives are at stake.
15 Likely Paul had been witnessing to many on the ship about “the hope of the promise that was made by God.” (Acts 26:6; Col. 1:5) Now, with shipwreck probable, Paul could offer a powerful basis for a more immediate hope. He said: “This night an angel of the God to whom I belong . . . stood by me and said: ‘Have no fear, Paul. You must stand before Caesar, and look! God has granted to you all those sailing with you.’” Paul urged them: “So take courage, men, for I believe God that it will be exactly as I was told. However, we must be cast ashore on some island.”—Acts 27:23-26.
“All Were Brought Safely to Land” (Acts 27:27-44)
16, 17. (a) Paul took what occasion to pray, and with what effect? (b) How did Paul’s warning come to be fulfilled?
16 After two frightful weeks, during which the ship was driven some 540 miles (870 km), the sailors sensed a change, maybe hearing breakers. They let out anchors from the stern to prevent drift and to direct the bow toward land in case they could beach the ship. At that point, they attempted to leave the ship but were prevented from doing so by the soldiers. Paul told the army officer and the soldiers: “Unless these men remain in the ship, you cannot be saved.” With the ship now a bit steadier, Paul urged all to take a meal, assuring them again that they would survive. Paul then “gave thanks to God before them all.” (Acts 27:31, 35) In offering this appreciative prayer, he set an example for Luke, Aristarchus, and Christians today. Are your public prayers a source of encouragement and comfort to others?
17 Following Paul’s prayer, “they all took courage and began taking some food themselves.” (Acts 27:36) They further lightened the ship by jettisoning the cargo of wheat, thus giving the ship a shallower draft for its approach to the shore. When day arrived, the crew cut away the anchors, unlashed the rudder oars at the stern, and hoisted a small foresail so that they would have some maneuverability as they ran the ship aground. Then the front of the ship got stuck, perhaps on a sandbar or in mud, and the stern started to break apart under the crashing waves. Some soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners so that none would escape, but Julius intervened to prevent this. He urged all to swim or float to shore. What Paul had foretold came true—all 276 survived. Yes, “all were brought safely to land.” But where were they?—Acts 27:44.
“Extraordinary Kindness” (Acts 28:1-10)
18-20. How did the people of Malta show “extraordinary kindness,” and what miracle did God perform through Paul?
18 It turned out that the survivors were on the island of Malta, south of Sicily. (See the box “Malta—Where?”) The foreign-speaking people of the island showed them “extraordinary kindness.” (Acts 28:2) They made a fire for these strangers who had reached their shore drenched and shivering. The fire helped them to get warm despite the cold and rain. It also gave rise to a miracle.
19 Paul lent a hand for the general good. He collected some sticks, which he put on the fire. As he did so, a poisonous viper emerged and bit him, fastening onto his hand. The Maltese people thought this was some sort of divine punishment. a
20 The local people who saw that Paul had been bitten thought that he would “swell up.” The original-language word found here is “a medical term,” according to one reference work. It is not surprising that such an expression might readily come to the mind of “Luke, the beloved physician.” (Acts 28:6; Col. 4:14) At any rate, Paul shook off the venomous serpent and was unharmed.
21. (a) What are some examples of exactness, or accuracy, that we find in this portion of Luke’s account? (b) What miracles did Paul perform, and with what effect on the Maltese people?
21 The wealthy landowner Publius lived in the area. He may have been the leading Roman officer on Malta. Luke described him as “the principal man of the island,” employing the exact title that has been found on two Maltese inscriptions. He hospitably entertained Paul and his companions for three days. However, Publius’ father was ill. Again Luke described a condition with accuracy. He wrote that the man “was lying in bed sick with fever and dysentery,” citing the precise medical nature of the illness. Paul prayed and laid his hands on the man, and he was healed. Deeply impressed by this miracle, the local people brought other sick ones to be healed, and they brought gifts to fill the needs of Paul and his companions.—Acts 28:7-10.
22. (a) How has one professor praised Luke’s account of the voyage to Rome? (b) What will we consider in the next chapter?
22 The portion of Paul’s voyage that we have considered so far resounds with accuracy and truth. One professor said: “Luke’s account . . . stands out as one of the most vivid pieces of descriptive writing in the whole Bible. Its details regarding first-century seamanship are so precise and its portrayal of conditions on the eastern Mediterranean so accurate” that it must have been based on a written journal. Luke may well have made such notes as he traveled with the apostle. If so, the next leg of the trip gave him plenty to write about as well. What would happen to Paul when they finally arrived in Rome? Let us see.
a That the people knew of such snakes indicates that vipers existed on the island back then. In modern times, vipers are not found on Malta. That difference might well be the result of changes in the habitat over the centuries. Or the increase in human population on the island may have eradicated vipers.